So, you want to know when I last had my menstrual period? Or took my last maternity leave?
No problem. As a woman working in India, it’s another question that irks me even more.
First the background: The Hindustan Times reported this week that new national requirements in the public sector will force women to report the dates of their period and of the last maternity leave taken. Female civil servants have reacted with outrage, saying it’s a gross invasion of privacy. Media, from local Indian television stations to the BBC, have been going crazy with this story. Ha, yet another sign of India’s oppression of women.
But since the questions were on a health form, I think I can forgive the babu who likely cut and paste the conditions onto page 58 of the 61-page document, among cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Who I can’t forgive is the one who came up with another query that has survived, partition to emergency to liberalization to nuclear tests.
Everyday, especially in these times of frantic hiring, men and women across India are asked a fairly irrelevant question, one that has little to no bearing on their job performance (probably even less so than having a child or menstruating). It is something that seems to pop up on every form, from banks to mobile companies, rent leases to mortgages. So ubiquitous has the question been that most Indians list it on their resumes.
With the exception of children, I don’t see why this is asked any more. I have found the language on all sorts of applications and forms, even visitations to companies. And yes, it was asked of me when I came to work here in November.
I can’t say I have formally protested, initially fearful I was viewing the issue through a western feminist’s lens. But this week’s outrage alleging an invasion of privacy and disregard for working women has motivated me to come forward.
And perhaps you, too.
What if companies heard from more women saying their PAN (Permanent Account Number) cards or addresses or passports should do just fine for identification? Would they perhaps think twice before cutting and pasting a part of our patriarchal legacy onto every single form that matters in this country?
Just to be sure this wasn’t a legal matter, I called up an official in the labour ministry seeking clarification.
“There is no labour law that requires you to answer that or ask that,” he said, requesting anonymity because he’s not supposed to talk to the press. “But for 60-80-100 years blindly, we have been asking this question.”
In 1999, the Supreme Court ruled that women have the same rights as men to act as natural guardians of a minor. A mother named Gita Hariharan filed a lawsuit against the Reserve Bank of India because her application for financial bonds in the name of her minor child had been rejected. The bank cited the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956, which regards the father, and only after him, the mother as the natural guardian of a minor. The Supreme Court ruled that the provision “after” had to be struck as it violated gender equality.
Still, single mothers tell me they are repeatedly asked for the name of their children’s fathers—and that they fear what their grown children will put on those forms one day when asked for the name of a father who might be estranged or absent.
Asked why companies are still seeking this data, long after children have grown into adults or wives have evolved into their own selves, most managers said it was just because that’s the way it’s always been done in India.
“It’s more legacy than anything else,” said P.V. Boccasam, the chief executive officer of Approva Corp., a software maker in Pune. “We don’t look at this or their date of birth.”
So, why keep asking for it?
Perhaps, as the Central government reviews page 58 of the All India Services (Performance Appraisal Report) Rules, 2007, it might want to look at a few other forms.
I’m going to do my part by calling up my bank. It owes me an explanation anyway.
When I filled out the form for my account back in November, the bank—like everyone else—asked me for my father or husband’s name. Since I never made an issue of it, I filled in the husband’s name, seeing myself as more his appendage than my faraway father’s.
Soon after, my husband applied as a joint applicant so he, too, could deposit and withdraw funds.
This week, we received a nice letter saying he had been rejected to be linked to the same account, likely because he is a freelancer.
Here, the modern Indian woman might feel solace, while the bank feels shame: On that form, I may be his “property” but I do make more money.
Your comments are welcome at email@example.com